Megachurch Hillsong operates and the tight grip it has on its followers, who are promised blessings for donations to build its tax-free revenue.
Megachurch Hillsong operates and the tight grip it has on its followers, who are promised blessings for donations to build its tax-free revenue.

Lifting the veil of secrecy on Hillsong

Exclusive: For the first time, News Corp lifts the veil of secrecy on megachurch Hillsong and the extent of its money-making activities which promises blessings for donations to bolster its staggering $103.4 million, tax-free revenue.

A special investigation has uncovered a trove of regulations and guidelines on how the church convinces worshippers to hand over millions, through to hard-core recruitment tactics and the lengths pastors go to justify their lavish lifestyles.

What started as a small Pentecostal church in suburban Sydney in the 1980s is now an international brand with 37 churches in Australia and another 91 spread across 28 countries boasting celebrities such as Justin Bieber and his wife Hayley, Nick Jonas and Selena Gomez.

In 2018, Hillsong raked in $103.4 million in revenue in 2018 and of this, an eye-watering $79.6 million was donated.

Hillsong spent most of its total revenue on church services ($50 million) which includes staff remuneration and campus operating costs, followed by venue operating costs ($12.4 million), global and local benevolent activities ($11.3 million) and arts, media and conferences ($10.3 million).

New York head pastor Carl Lentz pictured with Justin Bieber and Lil Wayne on Instagram.
New York head pastor Carl Lentz pictured with Justin Bieber and Lil Wayne on Instagram.

 

A brochure aimed at encouraging people to donate to the Hillsong Foundation tells followers those who donate big have the honour of being able to "resource God's House".

The hierarchical donation structure takes worshippers from being a faithful believer to closer to God as a top-tier "Kingdom Builder" for a cool $5000.

Followers encouraged to tip money into Hillsong coffers are offered three different statuses and an opportunity to earn more blessings based on how much money they donate.

* For a donation of $5000 or more, followers can earn the label of Kingdom Builder,

* Donations between $2500 and $4999 earn the title of Vision Impactor;

* And for up to $2499 they can be part of the Army of Faithful Believers.

Around the globe, 150,000 followers pack into Hillsong's churches and theatres every week where they religiously part with their cash in the hopes of being favoured by God.

Last year was the church's most successful year for donations in Australia, which has dramatically increased since 2014 ($54.7 million), 2015 ($63.1 million), 2016 ($73.3 million) and 2017 ($76.7 million).

Internal Hillsong documents obtained by News Corp reveal how the church uses faith to drum up financial support.

Followers are urged to donate above the standard 10 per cent of their income with the promise of getting the Lord's blessing.

 

 

Leaders of Hillsong's Connect Groups - which are small church groups that meet outside of services - are told to set a financial 'Faith Goal' and "build faith around giving generously and expecting to see God move miraculously".

"Make it clear that this is a faith commitment so it's good to encourage people to stretch where possible," the document advises, before the caveat: "At the same time, encourage people to be realistic".

"Abundant generosity not only leads to blessing in our own lives but to the lives of people around the globe," a second document reads.

And a third boldly declares donating will "spark UNUSUAL miracles!"

Money from these groups and the Hillsong Foundation is funnelled into church expansion, global missions and a number of Hillsong brands including Hillsong Channel, the church's television station.

Among the testimonies of those who gave big to the foundation was a couple who said their donation prevented them from being laid off work.

 

Bobbie Houston, who is the co-founder, and Global Senior pastor of Hillsong Church & President of Hillsong Music, Hillsong Channel & Hillsong College. Picture: Supplied
Bobbie Houston, who is the co-founder, and Global Senior pastor of Hillsong Church & President of Hillsong Music, Hillsong Channel & Hillsong College. Picture: Supplied

 

"It's amazing what happens when you take a step of faith in generosity," they gushed.

The Foundation's 2016 - 2017 brochure placed a heavy focus on outreach work funded by the donations, but Hillsong's 2017 annual report shows most of the money went back to the church.

More than $18.4 million was raised by the foundation in 2017, but just $2.95 million went towards benevolent activities.

The majority of the money went to Hillsong's Australian building facilities ($8.8 million), followed by its media and arts arm ($4.2 million) and missions and church planting ($1.65 million).

The foundation raised $17.5 million in 2018, but that year's report does not include a breakdown of where the money was spent.

Tanya Levin, 48, released her Hillsong expose, People in Glass Houses: An Insider's Story of a Life in and out of Hillsong in 2007 after spending her formative teenage years at the church.

The outspoken Hillsong critic told News Corp when she first attended, the church was "small, nice, warm" and family oriented, but eventually its focused locked onto donations and generating revenue.

 

 

Ms Levin said although she had left the church, stories she was told by current members showed "pretty much nothing's changed".

"We can't all be millionaires, the formula doesn't work. Not everyone who gives is going to get," she said of Hillsong's controversial donation tactics.

"(There's) a lot of people who have lost a lot of money through this. Marriages break down. That's the kind of thing that happens when you do this to people, tell them they've got to give money to be all right - to be faithful."

The enduring appeal of Hillsong could be put down to modern's society's "epidemic of loneliness", Ms Levin said.

"It's very much about community," she said.

Inside the Hillsong Conference.
Inside the Hillsong Conference.

"People really want to be a part of something bigger than themselves."

Increasing congregation numbers is vital for Hillsong to keep the donations flowing and a team of dedicated volunteers are on hand to encourage potential new followers.

An internal guideline for Hillsong's follow-up team, complete with a script, urges the volunteers to repeatedly call and text those who leave their contact information when signing in to a church service for the first time.

New contacts are allocated to volunteers each Monday in an online platform where notes about previous calls, emails and face-to-face interactions are recorded.

The goal is to have four "successful" connections with each person over a 12-week time period and eventually funnel them into Connect Groups - where extra donations are encouraged - volunteering roles, baptisms and Hillsong's bible college.

It is not just collection plates bolstering Hillsong's coffers.

 

 

The top five streamed songs of Hillsong's three bands, the creatively named Hillsong UNITED, Hillsong Young & Free and Hillsong Worship, have netted almost half a billion listens on Spotify.

Hillsong UNITED is also in the app's top 10 list of Australian artists streamed overseas.

Huge crowds flock to see the trendy band perform and its young, energetic members look more suited to rock music than the contemporary Christian genre.

Its 2019 US tour had US$250 VIP tickets on offer which included a meet and greet with the band, a gift bag and on-site host.

In 2017, Hillsong made more than $14.2 million from 'Music and Resources', but this metric was absent from its 2018 financial report.

 

Hillsong Untied are part of the megachurch’s big business.
Hillsong Untied are part of the megachurch’s big business.

 

Yearly conferences are big events for Hillsong with highly curated marketing and music festival vibes making them a highlight for followers.

Many of them look more like rock concerts than religious events with photos showing thousands of people packed into stadiums in front of hi-tech stages.

Almost 51,000 people attended Hillsong's various conferences in 2018, according to its annual report, contributing more than $7.2 million to its income.

This strong focus on donations to raise revenue is unique to modern churches, according to Professor of sociology and social research at Deakin University, Andrew Singleton.

 

 

Older churches, such as the Catholic Church, rely on investments, property ownership and sales, and bequests - whereas megachurches have to leverage larger congregation numbers to drum up direct donations.

Prof Singleton said while "historically, all churches have relied on voluntary contributions to get by", Pentecostal churches operated as single entities and "required financial independence to survive".

This has manifested itself as a strong focus on donating to the church and "ceremony" around giving during services, according to Prof Singleton.

 

Hillsong’s stars from Young & Free.
Hillsong’s stars from Young & Free.

 

"The most important thing to realise is how the churches cultivate a culture of giving," he said.

"That's the big difference between what you see in the main line Catholic and Anglican churches".

As of 2018, Hillsong had $19 million in plant, property and equipment assets, which included two buildings in Newcastle West purchased for a combined $4 million for its Newcastle campus.

The boom of Pentecostalism is in stark contrast to Australian society in general which is growing increasingly secular.

 

 

The number of people who identify as having 'no religion' increased from roughly 4.69 million to 6.94 million - or 48 per cent - from 2011 to 2016, according to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) census data.

Curiously, adherents to 'Christianity' decreased by 7 per cent during the same time period, but within that category members of the Pentecostal church increased from 238,000 to 260,500.

Hillsong experienced a 27 per cent growth in average weekly church attendance between 2014 and 2018, according to its annual reports, jumping from 34,083 people to 43,239 at its Australian and Bali locations.

The majority of its flock are aged between 20 and 34 (37.4 per cent), followed by 35 to 49 year olds (20.3 per cent) and 10 to 19 year olds (19.1 per cent), according to its 2017 report.

The increase in Pentecostalism could be put down to the "mass media appeal" of Hillsong and other megachurches, according to University of Queensland professor of the history of religious thought, Philip Almond.

 

Brian Houston outside the White House. He is the Global Senior pastor of Hillsong Church & President of Hillsong Music, Hillsong Channel & Hillsong College. Picture: Supplied
Brian Houston outside the White House. He is the Global Senior pastor of Hillsong Church & President of Hillsong Music, Hillsong Channel & Hillsong College. Picture: Supplied

 

"If you're a young person and you decide to investigate religion and you go down to the local Anglican Church on a Sunday morning and there's 10 people and a lady over 50 playing an electric organ, and then you go to Hillsong.

"Hey, I know where you're going to end up.

"This is old vs young, it's big vs small, and it's vibrant vs dull.

"It's marketed itself really well to a certain demographic."

Another point of appeal, according to Prof Almond, is modern megachurch's "jelly" theology which "doesn't make any great demands of people".

"This isn't fire and brimstone, this isn't about sin and guilt. This is about making people feel good.

"It's a feel good, commercialised, a kind of consumer religion.

"If the theology were any softer, it would disappear completely."



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